Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at the podium of the National Press Club • Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service
By the Rev. Mark Michael
The church’s role in American society is to “help a nation find its soul,” showing our culture how to choose “community and not chaos,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in an address at the National Press Club.
Bishop Curry spoke about the Episcopal Church’s focus on evangelism and racial reconciliation as “a commitment to the Jesus movement.” He urged congregations to seek partnerships with other people of good will, working across political and religious barriers to address issues of deep injustice and social division.
As part of the National Press Club’s regular Newsmakers series, Bishop Curry spoke to an audience of about 30, which included the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, Bishop of Washington, and the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson. Bishop Robinson, retired as the ninth Bishop of New Hampshire and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, called himself the “Bishop of M Street,” referring to the thoroughfare that runs through downtown, Georgetown, and Dupont Circle.
Though the talk was billed as a presentation on the church’s role in creating “a more inclusive society,” Curry’s robust, sermonic discourse focused more on evangelism. He described himself as deeply surprised and encouraged by the Episcopal Church’s decision to elect him as “Chief Evangelistic Officer” and to “put evangelism front and center in the agenda of the Episcopal Church.”
Bishop Curry framed his speech as a response to an observation by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Where Do We Go From Here? (1967). “We will live together as brothers and sisters,” King wrote, “or perish together as fools.”
For Curry, today’s extremist political rhetoric and racial tension indicate a society that has lost its bearings. “The old marriage of religion and culture ended in divorce, and [the culture] has chosen to worship the idols of the self.” This self-centeredness, which he described as a “golden calf in the wilderness,” is “a cancer that can destroy us all.”
At a time when religious extremists can dominate public discussion, Curry believes the Episcopal Church can speak for “the sensible center,” revealing Jesus’ focus on love for God and neighbor.
“The love of God is about the sacrifice of self-centered interest for the sake of others, for the sake of the world,” he said. “Love seeks the good and the welfare of the others. It is a disciplined way of life that will create a beloved community.”
Evangelism, for Curry, is an invitation to deeper love, drawing people closer to God and to each other.
When citizens truly love each other, Curry said, “we do not let children go to bed hungry; when that happens every child has an opportunity for an affordable and an excellent education; when that happens every human being is a child of God and endowed by God with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; when that happens we will lay down our swords and shields by the riverside and study war no more.
“We’re going to learn to live together, and the Episcopal Church is going to lead the way.”
Addressing a reporter’s question about the action of the Anglican Primates’ Meeting in mid-January, Curry said that “the primates understood clearly that we are committed to the Anglican Communion and equally committed to being ‘a house of prayer for all people.’ … Marriage equality is not a social program for us; that’s what love bids us do.”
Bishop Curry said the primates sent a clear message: “My sense is that the overwhelming majority of the primates voted the vote that they did as a way of saying, ‘We disagree with you. We can’t support your decision, because we believe you’ve changed core doctrine’ — and we disagreed with that — but they did not vote to vote us off the island.” He described the discipline imposed on the Episcopal Church by the primates’ communiqué as “limits on ambassadorial functions and direct leadership.”
It is a “moderated response,” he said, “a mature and adult response … a very specific, almost surgical response.”
“[The communiqué] expressed displeasure, but shows us still committed to being an Anglican family.”
To reach millennials, who are increasingly disconnected from the church, Curry says we must ask “What can the church do to make religion a more positive and meaningful voice in their lives?” and learn new ways to engage with people who share common values but are not part of congregations. He sees hopeful signs in the culture’s continued fascination with Jesus and the ministry of Pope Francis, “the best evangelist in the world right now.”
Curry cited North Carolina’s Moral Mondays as an example of the kind of faith-based engagement with public policy that reflects God’s love for the world. Curry described the movement, which staged large demonstrations in Raleigh in 2013-14 to protest discriminatory voting laws and cuts in social services, as nonpartisan and based on common commitment to the Golden Rule.
Though the protests did not result in legislative action, Curry believes the witness was profound. “In the long run, North Carolina is going to change.” The movement also, he said, helped church members to develop relationships with people of goodwill outside the church. “When we get to know each other as people, that may change our body politic.”